For Jeanne LaGreca-Ochoa, Tomlinson Park offers her Jack Russell, Valentine, great sniffing ground.
For Kathryn Reynolds, the same park has her on edge and searching for another place where her toddler can play.
Why these two women see the same piece of city property so differently remains to be seen. One of the most discussed parts of the park, the skate park, appears at the heart of the controversy.
Tomlinson Park, located between 18th and 19th Avenues and 54th and 55th Streets, includes two ball fields, batting cages, a pond, playground and a fenced skate park.
To use the skate park, skaters must follow a few rules: They must sign a consent form and pay a registration fee, and they must wear a helmet. They may bring bikes in on Sundays only. At one time, the city of Gulfport had a paid attendant overseeing the skate park, but currently no one supervises the park.
Dog walkers and neighbors say kids bring bikes into the park on a daily basis, and they rarely, if ever, see anyone wearing a helmet.
Reynolds, who lives on 53rd and walks her two children and dog around the park at least twice a day, says her issues with the skate park come from the language and behavior of the kids hanging around the park.
On several walks with her three-year-old and eight-month-old, she’s heard expletives shouted. When she asked the kids to watch their language, she says they told her, “You can’t tell me what to say, a––hole.”
“They use the ‘F’word. They do it to do it,” she sighs. “They’re as little as eight years old, and the older kids provoke the younger kids even more.”
Reynolds says if the city won’t monitor the park, she’d like to see the city remove it, perhaps replacing it with tennis courts. As a teenager, she worked as a skate park attendant in Virginia Beach. She suggests charging skaters a dollar or two to use the park each time they use it. That money, she says, could pay for a staff person to supervise the park.
“What you have is a group of teenagers. They do need an outlet,” she says. “But they need supervision.”
LaGreca-Ochoa sees things differently. She and her husband also walk their two dogs around the park twice a day. She thinks the city should budget to improve the ramps.
“The kids have a blast,” she says. “It keeps them off the street.”
Reynolds’ husband Bobby says the problems don’t end at the skate park. He works a later shift and walks their dog through the park later in the evening. Around 9 p.m., he says, he’ll see people climbing the recently installed gate blocking the walkway between the two ball fields. He says he has also seen kids on the roof of the ballpark clubhouse and over at the playground, in intense make out sessions. His wife says she has found used condoms at the playground and, as a result, won’t let their daughter use the equipment. They’ve already discussed it and when she’s old enough to go to the park alone, they will not allow it unless things change.
“If this is an issue, we will step up enforcement. No one has brought this to my attention,” City Manager Jim O’Reilly said.
Gulfport Police Officer Zack Mills is working with neighbors to see what the city can do. He’s walked the blocks adjacent to the park and talked to homeowners, and this week he’ll send a survey to neighbors surrounding the park.
The survey will go to 155 people, according to Mills. Among other things, the survey asks if the respondent has children, their address, and whether or not they feel their quality of life is negatively impacted by the Gulfport Skate Park.
Once the police get the surveys back – Mills says they will give respondents at least a few weeks to return the survey – the department will analyze responses and design a plan to solve problems at the park, if the survey indicates the residents feel a problem exists.
Mills says anyone who uses the park but does not receive the survey is welcome to participate in the survey as well.
“They can contact me at email@example.com,” to get a survey, he says, adding the police department will accept only one survey per address.
Respondents may return the survey to the police department between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Please ask the person collecting the survey to put it in Officer Mill’s mailbox.